I am seriously having great doubt about the Zen path for about the hundredth time.
The other night I went to a local sangha I sit with occasionally. The room that serves as the zendo was set up as usual with 10-15 cushion sets, for people to sit on the floor, and four chairs for us sick, elderly, or just incompetent. I don't remember now whether every chair was occupied. But the setup makes it clear that sitting on cushions is a sign of belonging. A young man came in near the bell and sat down on the cushions beside me. It is not done to talk once you're in the zendo, shoes off, and I have no idea whether he talked to anyone before he entered, or had been there before.
But it was easy to see that he was acutely uncomfortable, trying to find some position he could sustain. If you do not grow up sitting on floors, it can be quite difficult to learn how to. In my own life, I got help from a kind yoga teacher with my posture and my pain issues. I've always liked to get A's, and I persisted, and I did sit on a cushion for maybe ten years, until I had an ankle problem that ruled it out (and might have been brought on by all those years of half-lotus position, now that I think about it).
After about ten minutes, the guy next to me got up and quietly left. I did not get up and follow him. I hate this. It's not me. But I was quite depressed that evening, not thinking well at all.
You do not have to sit in lotus position to gain wisdom or "attain enlightenment." Fortunately for me, I began meditating on my own, sitting comfortably in my brown leather recliner, recovering from surgery. Sitting in that same chair two years later, after my second retreat, I had a great awakening experience. My spine was not erect at the time and I was not sitting motionless. I tell this only to point out that you can have realizations without tormenting your body.
I empathize with that guy. I, too, went to the only Zen group in town when I was first practicing, and felt the need for other people to support me. I, too, tried to sit on the damn floor, since no chairs were provided there, and, using considerable willpower, adjusted my posture only a couple of times during that first excruciatingly long sit. After that, while others walked kinhin, the leader drew me aside and talked to me about how I was disturbing others by moving, and went and found a chair in another room and put me in it, all by myself like the dunce of the class. I am still embarrassed at the memory. But it happens that I'm stubborn about not letting the bastards get me down, and I persisted in my practice.
People don't come to Zen - or yoga, or church - on a whim. We are looking for something; we are in need. But the way imitation-Japanese Zen valorizes sitting on the floor and enduring pain (and sleep deprivation) , if you can't do it, you don't belong. Nothing could make that any clearer than all those cushions and no chairs. And no welcoming.
I had a similar experience with yoga, once. There were just six of us in that class, arrayed in a single line in the long room before the teacher. Three of us could do almost nothing that teacher did, though this was billed as a Beginner's class. She never offered one hint of what you could do if you were not able to balance on one hand and one foot for minutes on end. It's the same delusion: that It is attained by physical forms. I didn't go back, if you're wondering.
This. Is. Elitism. It is reinforced by the idea that a Zendo is a sort of tabernacle you enter barefoot and silent. It is there in the persistent grave problem of sexual scandals in Zen, which has caused some hurt feelings online recently. Teachers are glorified by the aura of holiness around dharma transmission, students are attracted to the power (just as they are to politicians), the teachers have sex with confused students. Often, it turns out, with many of them.
Special-endurance Zen is a masculinist tradition whose paramilitary rituals play to testoserone. It is fed in this culture by the failures of the nuclear family, by the American craving to succeed, to be special. It is supported by teachers who write and talk about how important it is for you to have a special understanding born of mystical insight. They don't talk nearly as much about simple everyday kindness. They chant hymns to Kanzeon (Kuan Yin), but are not trained in compassion. Koan study throws fuel on the flame of striving. Robes, hitting with sticks, still worse.
I don't know whether the man who sat next to me so briefly the other night had ever attended that group before, or ever will again, or where he went when he left. I hope it wasn't to a bar. In the discussion of generosity afterward, no one talked about the generosity of heart that should mean you set up plenty of chairs so that every visitor can find a comfortable seat. The compassion that should mean you welcome every person who comes in the door.
In that other Zen group, whose karma lingers on, I overheard one of the regulars tell another about his visit to one of the big East Coast Zen Centers. I've visited there. There were a lot of Lexuses and BMWs in the parking lot. This guy, who was married with children, said, "Wouldn't it be wonderful to go there for a three-month retreat and "really practice?" I kept walking, thinking They don't get it.